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From State Church to Third Sector Organization? The Separation of Church and State in Sweden

Den senaste veckan har jag haft nöjet att delta i en internationell konferens anordnad av International Society for Third Sector Research (ISTR). Själv presenterade jag ett paper om relationen mellan Svenska kyrkan och staten i Sverige:

"During most of the 20th century the Church of Sweden was a typical example of a northern European established national church, even a state church. The separation of church and state had been discussed repeatedly during most of the century, without reaching an overall solution. Yet, in the early 1990’s a compromise was reached and the relationship between church and state in Sweden was transformed, simultaneously transforming the Church of Sweden, seemingly transferring it from the public sector to the private sector. This paper offers an analysis of this reform, including how the issue was framed and the arguments used to legitimize the reform. It also offers an analysis of what the reform changed in terms of the relationship between the Church and the state, arguing that a strong relationship between state and religious denominations still exist in Sweden, even though several steps have been taken towards considering Lutheran Christianity one religion among many in a society where the state is neutral in religious affairs, but not reducing the Church of Sweden to one denomination among many. Instead, the reform has left the Church as a legally regulated entity in the borderland between state and third sector, while at the same time strengthening the relationship between the government and other denominations. In spite of this, the changed relationship between church and state may have enabled the Church of Sweden to take a more active part in Swedish society, both in terms of politics and in terms of welfare production.
The aim of the paper is to discern what changed in the relationship between the Church of Sweden and the state through the reform of 2000, which arguments, or norms, legitimized the change, and how the relationship between the Church of Sweden and the state could be described, in terms of state and third sector relations, today. Studies of the third sector in Sweden have often focused on the membership-based popular movement organization, and more recently on the growing role of the third sector as a provider of welfare services (e.g. Wijkström 1997, Trägårdh 2011, Rothstein & Trägårdh 2007), thus ignoring the special features of the Church of Sweden. Yet, the Church of Sweden is not only the largest and richest third sector organization in the country (SCB 2014) but also one which has had a large and often overlooked role in the development of the Swedish welfare state (Berggren & Trägårdh 2015, Naumann 2014, Wijkström 2014). This paper will thus contribute to our understanding of the role played today by the Church of Sweden as a central actor in the borderlands between state and civil society in Sweden today. By extension, it will also contribute to our understanding of the roles of the Protestant established national churches in general, a subject which has arguably been the subject of fewer studies than secularization processes in other parts of Western Christianity (Casanova 2014).
After the reform of year 2000, the Church has significantly more third-sector characteristics. It exists as a group of distinct legally enabled organizations, which are all legally considered to be separate from the state. They are also clearly non-profit organizations and classified as such for tax purposes. The Church is primarily funded by membership fees and membership is now voluntary, requiring a voluntary action, such as baptism. Even though this action may be performed on the initiative of the parents of an infant, it contrasts sharply with the previous automatic membership assigned to every newborn. From the viewpoint of Salmon’s and Anheier’s (1997) definition of the third sector, the Church of Sweden is now a third sector organization.
However, the registration of religious denominations and their specific relation to the tax office also suggests that while the Church of Sweden is now treated more similarly to other registered denominations, this does not only imply an increased distance between the Church of Sweden and the state, but also a closer relation between the state and the other registered denominations, mediated through the National Council of Religious Denominations. This relationship could be considered neo-corporative, and thus conforming to how the Swedish state typically relates to third sector organizations (cf. Harding 2013).  This is fully in line with the main argument used for further separating Church and state; that the increased religious pluralism of Swedish society demanded a more equal treatment of religious denominations, without the state unduly favoring any single denomination. It is also in line with another central argument for the separation, namely that the creation of a democratic structure for the Church of Sweden enabled it to act as a legitimate democratic organization; while democratic legitimacy had previously been provided through the democratic organs of the state regulating the Church (Harding 2015), the Church was now itself a democratic organization fulfilling the basic criteria for democracy as viewed in the Swedish third sector.
The relationship between the Church of Sweden and the state is also not entirely the same as that of the other registered denominations and the state. The Law on the Church of Sweden regulates both the organizational structure of the Church of Sweden and its creed. It is interesting to note that the many properties and entities in the Church of Sweden which could be seen as forerunners of modern civil society, e.g. self-owning parish churches and foundation-like properties dedicated to finance certain purposes, have now been transferred to (at least partially) membership-based organizations, primarily Church parishes. This does not simply constitute a step towards, or away, from the third sector in relation to the modern state. This aspect of the reform is better described as an adaption of proto-third-sector features to the standard modes of organization in the modern Swedish third sector. The same could be said of the establishment of elected assemblies and boards representing the members of the Church, i.e. representing a democratic form of legitimacy in organizational authority, contrasting to the authority of the clerical hierarchy, but similar to the democracy of popular movements, and even more similar to that of the secular public sector.
While the government and the new legislation supported both, the democratic and the clerical aspects of Church organization, it is also evident that the government commissions considered the introduction of these democratically legitimated bodies an important step towards establishing a form of organization which would legitimate the Church as an independent organization. In this sense, the reforms could be considered to constitute an adaption of the organization of the Church to the isomorphic norms of Swedish civil society, what has been metaphorically described as a ‘popular-movement marinade’, in which the Swedish third sector is marinated. That the Church continues to perform delegated government responsibilities – whether providing for funerals, preserving cultural heritage, or providing welfare services – does not make it less independent, at least not in theory.
Many experts are now seeing a tendency that the Swedish third sector is taking a more active role in in welfare services, which were previously generally viewed as responsibilities of the welfare state. The third sector is finding new roles as a provider of welfare services, not just as advocacy organizations or interest groups. The Church of Sweden and organizations close to it have always provided such services, but it now appears to be acting more freely as an advocacy organization, as well as a service provider (cf. Wijkström 2014). There is thus reason to believe that the Church of Sweden will continue to adapt to the norms the Swedish third sector, even when those norms may be changing, adapting the popular movement organization to new normative concepts originating in the public sector, as well as in the market, and in the international third sector.
While the reforms discussed in this paper can be considered to have increased the distance between church and state – in that the Church of Sweden is now more distinct as a separate non-profit entity – it cannot be considered fully independent as long as both its organizational form and its religious creed remain legally regulated. The continued influence of political parties in Church affairs also represents a strong organizational connection between the church and the state. The transferal of many church properties from pre- or early-modern foundation-like institutions to membership-based organizations represents a decrease in legislative regulation, but also increased opportunities for political control. This too, could be considered to be in line with the reasoning of the commissions. It does indeed appear to have been in line with the will of the Church, as organized at the time."


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